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Blacks, Latinos, Asians bent on to breaking glass ceiling of  Gwinnett County politics

By D. Aileen Dodd First of two parts | 5/3/2013, noon
Kathy Rivera, left, owner of La Fragua Restaurant, stands outside with customer Angel Sanchez Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 in Norcross, Ga. Despite explosive growth in the last decade, Georgia Hispanics and other minorities haven’t made a dent in Gwinnett County politics. Minority political activists say the diverse populations of the northern Georgia county need to work more closely together. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

One group, Gwinnett Citizens-United, a political action committee launched by a coalition of African-American pastors, has signed up more than 4,000 people pledging to become politically active in upcoming races by either voting, running for office or contributing to campaigns. The nonpartisan group will offer a platform to those candidates that support minority community issues. Members include a network of black church congregations and Hispanic community leaders. The group also is reaching out to Asians.

“Democracy works best when people feel that they are represented,” said Kerwin Swint, professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. “Unfortunately, what happens in local politics is the old guard hangs on as long as it can. They have an advantage a lot of time with campaign contributions and business networks that keep electing the same people. It may take time for others to break through.”

Why have diverse communities in Gwinnett failed to be elected as leaders in county government?

Some blame it on the weak economy. They say would-be politicians are more focused on day-to-day survival rather than running for office. Some blame it on political disenfranchisement and low voter turnout. Some say it’s the language barrier and the learning curve new immigrants face as they come to understand their role in local government.

Tim Hur, a real estate broker who describes himself as a second-generation Korean American, said while his parents’ generation focused on maintaining their culture and building a stable financial foundation for their families, his generation is becoming more politically active.

Hur serves on nearly 10 community boards, including participating with the Gwinnett Chamber, the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and nonprofits. He said that Asians understand that a diversity of ideas and experiences can improve government and that ethnicity and "where you come from matters," said Hur, owner of Points Honors and Associates. (In Gwinnett’s Asian and Pacific Islander community, among the largest groups are immigrants from Korea, India, Vietnam and China who speak different languages.)

“We need to make sure there is representation in all forms of government,” Hur said. “There will be opportunities to get involved on the school board and in local politics. You will see a lot of emerging leaders coming up that are being groomed to run for office."

Winning a seat on the school board, which oversees a budget of nearly $2 billion, hires the superintendent, and appoints administrators, could open doors for more diversity within leadership in Gwinnett Schools. The school district is the largest employer in Gwinnett with 22,000 employees. Most of the county’s principals are white.

In 2008, Asian Democrat Ravindra Kumar, who was then a faculty member at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, came closest to becoming the first minority to win a seat on the Gwinnett school board. He finished the race within 5 percentage points of defeating Louise Radloff, who is now in her 11th term after serving for more than 40 years on the school board.

In 2012, black community leaders said some minority candidates for state legislature, city council, and school board were defeated because voters were unaware that they were running.

“We need to have a medium by which we can get the word out,” said Mark Williams, president of the Gwinnett branch NAACP, who recently lost a bid for state senator in District 55 against Gloria Butler. “There is a lack of communication and a lack of coordination between organizations.”

GC- United aims to bridge the communication gap between diverse communities. The group’s website gc-united.org, features county demographics, information about Gwinnett politicians and the claim that “No minority has ever been elected to office in the county government in the last 50 years.” For new candidates, the group, which meets regularly, will post photos and information about their views on issues important to minorities and other voters.

“There are many citizens, especially those in the new ‘majority minority’ community who are becoming increasingly concerned that we are not at the table in many areas of government where decisions are made that greatly affect our lives,” said Rev. Richard B. Haynes of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Lilburn, a group founder and spokesman. “Gwinnett Citizens United was launched to promote the election and appointment of county and local government officials that will see to the interest of all residents.”